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    A Times Editorial

    Foul call at Legends

    Because the Bush rally was open to the public, the protesters should have had their rights protected by Tampa police instead of being arrested.

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 8, 2001

    President Bush's rally at Tampa's Legends Field on Monday was more than just another tightly scripted political event to promote his tax-cut plan. It also turned into a cowardly exercise in suppressing legitimate protest.

    The event was advertised as being open to the public, but only Bush boosters were welcome. No one who publicly opposed the president's tax cuts, his environmentally risky energy policy or his national missile defense shield was allowed to enter the stadium, even if they were holding a ticket. Those presidential critics who were somehow able to slide past security were jostled and denounced by the crowd for holding signs that read "Florida Votergate" and "June is Gay Pride Month." The resulting disturbance led to the arrests of the men and women who refused to give up their signs.

    A Secret Service spokesman, who insisted that his agency wasn't involved in removing any of the protesters, said rally organizers were within their rights to exclude whomever they wanted because the function was private. If this had been a truly private event, the agent would have been correct. Constitutionally, sponsors of a private event can screen the audience as long as they don't discriminate against a protected group.

    However, White House spokesperson Jeanie Mano said "this was a governmental, presidential event." White House staff participated in organizing the rally, along with local supporters and the hosts of Legends Field, a publicly financed stadium. Public employees helped pull together a rally at which the public at large was invited to hear the president. Although Mano also said the event was called "private" by the Secret Service, it had a distinctly public character. It was partly paid for with tax dollars and should have been an event at which all points of view regarding the president's agenda were welcome. A "First Amendment zone" set up by organizers and situated one-third of a mile away from the stadium entrance was not even close to acceptable. All of the United States is a First Amendment zone.

    The Tampa Police Department shares blame for this outrage. Spokeswoman Katie Hughes couldn't even get her story straight. Initially, she said the police were acting on instructions from the Secret Service that signs critical of the president were a security risk. But the Secret Service denied issuing such a policy. Gregory Mertz, the special agent in charge of the Secret Service office in Tampa, told St. Petersburg Times staff writer Christopher Goffard that holding up a sign regardless of its content is an individual right. Hughes then backtracked, saying the police department's actions against protesters were on instructions from Legends Field security.

    Since when do on-duty Tampa police blindly take orders from private security guards? At what point in their training were Tampa police told to ignore the Constitution on some rent-a-cop's say-so?

    The event was an all-around bad show -- a contrived, staged performance at which only one side of the story was allowed to be heard and heavy-handed police tactics were used to silence dissenters. The real question is, what exactly were President Bush and his team so afraid of?

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